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Definition: Ghost Dance from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1890) : a group dance of a late 19th century American Indian messianic cult believed to promote the return of the dead and the restoration of traditional ways of life


Summary Article: Ghost Dance
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

American Indian religious revivalist movement that spread through the Plains Indians and other ethnic groups in the 1890s. In January 1889, a Paiute Indian named Wovoka had a vision that the old ways would be restored, the buffalo herds would return, white people would disappear, and the Indians would be reunited with friends and relatives in the ghost world. This vision became the nucleus for the Ghost Dance, in which American Indian peoples engaged in frenzied trance-inducing dancing, believing it would eliminate the whites and leave only the Indians and their ancestors. The movement spread rapidly, creating a fervour and unity among the various ethnic groups that caused fear among white settlers, and which ultimately contributed to the massacre at Wounded Knee after government agents called on the US Army to quell the movement.

Roots of the movement The Ghost Dance movement was a reaction to the total defeat of the Plains Indians by the US Army and their confinement to small Indian reservations. Here they were dependent on the handouts of corrupt Indian agents appointed by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. Their children were taken away to be educated as Christians, and the Plains Indians' culture was being systematically destroyed. The North American buffalo, or bison, herds that had once sustained their way of life were being hunted to near extinction, and their millions of hectares of land were now the property of the USA. The Dawes Act of 1887 divided the Plains Indians' remaining land into allotments to force them to become farmers as individuals rather than remain part of their ethnic group. There seemed to be little hope for the future of the American Indian peoples.

The Ghost Dance appealed to the Plains Indians as it offered them a solution to their desperate conditions and suffering. The idea that the Great Spirit would come and save them from the whites tied in with their beliefs.

US reaction The Lakota or Sioux on their reservations in North and South Dakota were living in some of the most desperate conditions on the Plains. This formerly powerful group had lost its freedom on the northern Plains between 1860 and 1880, being reduced to prisoners of the USA. In October 1890 the Ghost Dance movement reached Standing Rock, where Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa Sioux lived with the Oglala Sioux. Although Sitting Bull allowed his people to take part, he did not do so himself. However, the Indian agent decided to arrest the chief for encouraging the Ghost Dance, and Sitting Bull was killed by Red Tomahawk, a Sioux working as a reservation police officer for the US government.

The death of Sitting Bull, supposedly while resisting arrest, caused Sioux peoples on other reservations involved in the movement to flee. The panic led to the tragic events of 29 December 1890 when members of Chief Big Foot's Miniconjou Sioux and Sitting Bull's remaining Hunkpapa were killed at the Battle of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by soldiers of the US 7th Cavalry. The Indians had been attempting to reach the safety of Red Cloud's Pine Ridge Reservation.

For white Americans, the Ghost Dance represented the backwardness and continuing threat posed by the Plains Indians. It simply intensified their desire to destroy the Plains Indians forever.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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